We had a glorious springtime visit to the amazing resorts of Snowmass and Aspen, Colorado. It did not always feel like spring - in fact, some hours it felt like January. But, most of the time the sun was out and the fresh fallen snow was light and powdery. The snow fell heavily for a few days before we arrived, and was intermittent during our week. Colorado weather can be like a politician’s moods - it changes rapidly.
It had been years since we last visited Aspen and Snowmass, and I am ashamed of myself for waiting so long. No wonder these resorts have long been considered the gems of the West. This time, we came for two reasons: the skiing of course, and the chance to spend still another clinic with the brave wounded warriors. This conference is the biggest one held in the nation. It is the 23rd annual Clinic, sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Disabled Veterans of America, and a number of other government and private organizations. Most of the wounded are veterans, but some are still serving in the military. There were about 400 wounded in this Clinic, and about 600 volunteers. Some volunteers are about to enter the military service, and expect to deploy to Afghanistan.
It was impressive to meet the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, General Eric Shinseki at the meeting. He walked around, tried to meet all the vets, and told them he is there to serve them.
Many in this group served, and were wounded in Vietnam; others were hurt in other areas where American soldiers deployed. Some are older than in past clinics we covered. I met a lovely veteran, William Franklin Davenport, who is 87 years old, and still skis! There were the same injuries we had seen so often - many who had lost limbs, were visually impaired, or suffered brain or spinal cord injuries, and PTSD. But, they were out there on the slopes, skiing, snowboarding, sit skiing, racing, and taking part in other activities. A few had their helper dogs with them, who joined in most activities.
There were even scuba diving classes in the heated, outdoor pool on one of the slopes. There are many more such activities to come for the warriors in the summer months. They are fun, but do not begin to make up for their suffering. The activities are an important form of rehabilitation. As one of the speakers said, “the mountain makes you face your fears again - you are once again a band of brothers.”
As for the trip itself - we will take it day by day. We left Bethesda at about 5 in the morning Sunday, after a nearly sleepless night. Charles did another of his heroic jobs driving through the dark mist and rain to BWI airport. We parked in one of the economy parking lots, made cheaper with a printed coupon. Our Southwest Airlines flight to Denver was direct, inexpensive (about $250 roundtrip each) and reasonably smooth, considering the bad weather throughout the country.
By mid morning, Colorado time, we were in the Denver airport, had rented a car, and were on our way. I argued we should use one of the shuttle buses, but they were much more expensive, and the timing did not work for us. I lost that argument, but fortunately the weather was clear and the 5 hour drive was fine. The scenery was so dramatic, as always. We could see people skiing on the wonderful slopes of Loveland, Copper Mountain, Vail, and other resorts, as we made our way to Snowmass. All the areas looked in terrific shape, thanks to the recent heavy snowfalls. We saw evidence of rock slides en route, and were greeted by four longhorn sheep on the side of the road. The dramatic rock formations, Glenwood Canyon on the Colorado River, and the Amtrak train, all made for a memorable (but long) drive. In Snowmass Village we were greeted by a huge American flag and sign hanging on a building under construction that read “Hardhats Welcome Veterans.” This was a theme we saw everywhere all week: the Aspen Elks Club, the ski areas, the local merchants, and corporate and individual sponsors have gone to great effort to honor and care for the participants of this clinic.
We arrived at the Conference in time to check into the Snowmass Inn, where we got a special rate of $78 for a room with 2 double beds and breakfast. It is usually more at other times but, as I always advise, get a package rate or sign up for a ski club trip for all destinations. We were in time for a delicious “Taste of Snowmass” where restaurants in the Snowmass Village mall contributed entrees and desserts on the plaza for the veterans and volunteers. Then, time to mingle with friends, attend the welcoming ceremony, team meetings and parties.
We had some of our best runs of the season, thanks to our hosts Jennifer Rudolph, the Director of Communications, her husband Josh, and Jeff Hanle, the Director of Public Relations for the Aspen Skiing Company. They loaned us heavy golden medals for lift passes, symbolizing the golden glow of the area. They also helped us with rental equipment from “Four Mountain Sports.” Again, I usually advise renting most equipment, if you can, although many people prefer to carry their own boots. I was given slick Tecnica high-performance boots and K2 “Lotta Love” skis at my favorite length of 156. I had two excellent, long runs on them. But, by the afternoon, I developed leg cramps from the weight (heavier than my old stuff in the East).
The final run down took place in intense cold, and blinding wind and blowing snow. I am glad I had reliable equipment to get me down. Thanks also to a gallant young soldier in training Ryan Tucker, who helped guide me down. I was somewhat comforted by the veterans and instructors around us - it was hard for everyone, and especially challenging for the guides to the blind skiers. As far as I know, we all made it down. I was relieved to see Charles come down a few moments later - I did not even know he was on the same trail.
At Snowmass, we took the Village Express Chair and the Elk Camp Gondola. We tried to stick to blue and green runs, because the weather was so cold and windy in the afternoon. But, we had some terrific cruising on the well groomed runs in the morning. Our friends were off to the sides, where they flown down the virgin powder. The general conditions in Snowmass could not have been better. All 91 trails were open and many were groomed. The base depth was over 93 inches at the top. This should last for several more weeks.
At night, we rejoined some of the Veterans for a variety of activities. Charles went to a class for Music Therapy for the wounded; we both watched a spirited game of goal ball. It is a bit like soccer, but the players are either blind or wear blindfolds. They roll around a ball which has bells inside it, and try to listen so they can find it and score goals. Unfortunately, we did not make it to the Purple Hearts Gathering, or the Marine Corps Reunion.
Nothing beats the sheer beauty of the mountains when they are covered in snow, groomed, uncrowded, and bathed in sunshine. Most of the warriors were out in force on many of the trails. Charles took a shuttle bus to Aspen, to participate in activities there. Too bad - he missed an amazing ski tour of Snowmass Mountain. Our Mountain Ambassador, or Guide, was Jerry Butler. All of us in the group were seniors, but we constantly took fast runs down the groomed trails. In three hours of intense skiing, I did not see anyone from our group fall. What amazing athletes - Mary Gochenour is 71 and Marilyn Gladish is 67. When they are not skiing, they are running races or participating in a variety of other sports.
We took so many blue and green runs I cannot remember then all. They included some in the wide, expansive Big Burn - Sneaky, Trestle, and Max Park. In Alpine Springs we took Log Deck, Lower Lunkerville, and Coffee Pot. In Elk Camp, we took Gunner’s View, Funnel, and Adams Avenue. We rode four lifts and the Gondola. At each stop, Jerry gave us a fascinating talk about the history of the area. He has to be the King of Mountain Ambassadors!
In the afternoon, I collapsed from exhaustion! I tried to get up to attend a Cajun Dance, but could not force myself to move. The Veterans and loved ones who attended the dance said it was great fun. The best events included the wheel chair dancing, and general dancing by those who are whole bodied, and those who have lost limbs. All inhibitions were cast aside, and a sense of live and community prevailed.
The morning dawned with another heavy snowfall, but skiers and riders still flocked to the mountains. Even without visibility, they lusted after that fresh, fluffy powder. There were many side activities for the 400 Vets, so I sought out the heated swimming pool, where scuba diving lessons were being given. There, instructors Mike and Susan tried to teach me how to use the oxygen and breathe through the mouthpiece. It was an interesting experience, and I spent about a half an hour trying to learn. Maybe I will in another life. But, I kept looking up at the mountains, waiting for the snow to end, so Charles and I could take some runs in the fresh afternoon powder, which we later did for about two hours. The powder was ungroomed in most spots, and provided an interesting challenge.
Scuba diving is one of many important activities for the Veterans. It gives them confidence and mobility. One lady in the pool with me at the time was a former Wheel Chair Miss Virginia. She is beautiful, charming, and high spirited. The instructors were patient, professional and funny. I had a lot of fun splashing around with them!
The sun was shining, and there was fresh powder everywhere. The trails were groomed, and there was much perfect corduroy on many of them. Charles and I went to the top of the chair and the Gondola, and skied for miles. The best area was Elk Camp, with its wide, groomed expanses of snow. But, everything was perfect. I am pleased I was skiing and singing with great rhythm and control. It is always sad to end a ski season, but I am pleased I did so on an up note. My earlier lack of confidence disappeared. For us, the ski season is probably over. But, there are weeks left in the West for those who can make the trip, and there are plenty of bargains in flights, lift prices, and lodging. Enjoy the snow!
When she wasn't skiing, Connie Lawn covered the White House as a reporter since 1968.
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